It should surprise no one that The Walking Dead's second episode, entitled "Guts", is about fear. The fear of not knowing where your husband/wife/son are. The fear of someone different from you in some way -- skin color, or the smell of your clothing. The fear of losing communication with your fellow human. And of course, the visceral fear of death, pouring from every frame of this episode.
The plot is simple enough -- Rick, trapped in a tank, makes contact with another human being named Glenn. This leads him to more survivors, giving him his first true glimmer of hope. But they have to get out of the city to get back to camp, and therein lies the rub -- trapped in a department store in the middle of town, fear comes alive. Dickson, the sniper, makes a racist comment towards T-Dog, a black member of the group in charge of radio communications with the survivor camp. When the decision comes on who should explore the underground options for escape, Glenn wants to go alone, because he is afraid that more people will only be more detrimental to survival. (His fear of the unknown, and staring down into it, evoked the final image of LOST's first season for me -- the man of faith and man of science staring down into the Hatch, a metaphor for the journey of humanity.) Ultimately, Rick and Glenn lather up in zombie guts, plastering themselves with the greatest fear they've come to know: the Walkers. And let's not forget Lori, whose fears of an uncertain future for herself and her son Carl leads to an illicit romance with Rick's buddy Shane. The marriage ring, still hanging around her neck, is no longer a symbol of love, but of loss, and the fear of future loss.
I've got to give my props to Bear McCreary this week. I think he's a brilliant TV composer, and he's really making full use of his talents here on this show. Just as our worst fears tend to come from the things we can't perceive (as for instance the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who, or the Gentlemen from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Hush"), McCreary enhances the visceral experience of watching the show by being selective about where his score is placed. The silence is frightening because we don't know where to look next and have no guidance from the music to help us; the music is frightening because it can mask the groans of the Walkers, or the emotions of the characters, who, faced with uncertainty and fear, are in constant conflicts with their own ids.
"Guts" is very bleak because it is representing different characters reacting to the same situation based on the same emotion. Dickson resorts to violence and racism, attempting to maintain his own personal lifestyle choices at the expense of the community; Lori surrenders hope that Rick is alive and makes plans for a future with Shane and Carl, but she keeps her wedding ring around her neck. Even Rick himself is driven by fear -- he has no idea if Lori or Carl are still alive. But he lets Dickson live, and he permits the shoplifting of jewelry from the store, because he has more than fight-or-flight instincts going for him -- he also has hope, courage, willpower. And though the moments are rare (and usually involve Dodge Challengers and joyful Glenns), the group is thankful for Rick's appearance, because he represents a humanity that doesn't end just because the world does. He even hates that Dickson ultimately gets left behind, which is contrast to how the survivor camp reacts to the news that the group got stuck in the middle of Atlanta. To the survivors, that group is as good as dead. To Rick, there's still hope for Dickson.
As many Americans will argue, of course, "hope" is just a buzz-word. But we'll see how this story develops in the weeks to come. In the meantime, "all I am is a man looking for his wife and son"... and we should all be afraid of that fury.